Big Red Machine - Big Red Machine

by Tim Sentz Rating:8 Release Date:2018-08-31
Big Red Machine - Big Red Machine
Big Red Machine - Big Red Machine

Supergroups are hard. Bringing together consummate professionals for the purpose of delivering something wholly original and unique is exhilarating to hear about – but this “sounds better on paper” concept has given us some tragic misfires over the last few years. Never one to shy away from collaborations, Justin Vernon has explored several outlets over the last decade – the short-lived 22-man band Gayngs, the two-album stretch of freak folk with Volcano Choir, and of course lending his stylings to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisty Fantasy. He’s developed from a Milwaukee indie favorite to one of the biggest musicians in the world.

Big Red Machine is the most recent exploration into his psyche. Whereas 22, A Million was his Id going full blown into auto-tune, BRM scales that influence back in favor of some of Vernon’s most straightforward vocals of his career. He even dials back his falsettos, focusing more on emulating the National – Aaron Dessner being a major collaborator on this – than retreading his past. On the opener “Deep Green,” Vernon alternates his vocals to match the almost Radiohead-like electronics. But the thing that sticks out the most about Big Red Machine is the nuances that are embedded. Irish singer Lisa Hannigan (formerly part of Damien Rice’s backing band) harmonizes with Vernon sweetly, while Dessner’s drum machine rapidly taps. Intricately assembled, and maybe there’s a bit of stream-of-consciousness approach, but it all is wound tightly.

“Gratitude” was the most inviting of the singles released, and it’s everything we’ve come to enjoy from both parties. Multi-instrumentalist Richard Reed Parry of Arcade Fire takes on a backing vocal duty here, laced with piano and even throat whistling, BRM honor their back catalogues with a modest attempt at merging them. But it feels more than that on times, as Vernon’s never been the “hard rocking” type, where the National have absolute shredders like “Mr. November” or even “The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness.”  The closest to that style would be “Lyla” which isn’t an Oasis cover but features rising star Phoebe Bridgers duetting with Vernon while he whips out a gnarly electric guitar lick.

There’s bound to be comparisons between Big Red Machine and the last Volcano Choir LP Repave, though the falsetto is stripped way back, it still feels like a spiritual successor or evolution from that album. Broken Social Scene is one of the few multi-individual projects going that is competently making this process work, and while BRM doesn’t come close to the highs of BSS, Big Red Machine is a valiant effort to keep things interesting in the musical landscape. Gorgeous strings run through the entire album, and delicate keys by Dessner are employed making this feel like – dare I say – the next logical step for Vernon and the National to go. The National played with this aesthetic a little bit on last year’s Sleep Well Beast, specifically “I’ll Still Destroy You,” which seemed like a strange departure, but now hearing Big Red Machine it makes sense.

Things get ballad-y on “Hymnostic” and features 2/3 of the sister trio The Staves and it lives up to its name, feeling like a church-choir reaching for the heavens. The most ambitious track on Big Red Machine is the over seven-minute opus “OMDB” and features elegant strings coupled with a drum machine, woven delicately together. Not every track is resounding success – album closer “Melt” feels like a National B-side just recut with Vernon’s vocals and is a bit of a grower if not ultimately skippable. “Air Stryp” feels a bit unfinished, acting more like a segue or even teaser, which is a shame given the stunner of a beginning trio Big Red Machine has.

Vernon and the National haven’t created a project that overshadows their previous work, nor does it disgrace their legacy. But it falls on the better end of collaborations and offers a reprieve from Vernon’s experimental side. He still uses all of the instrumentation as before, but instead of hiding like he did on 22, A Million, he’s front and center which is complemented by Dessner’s instrumentation. This might be a one-off, but all parties involved have created something special.

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